Monday, March 16, 2009

Week Twelve: Scottish Neil Oliver And His Lovely Hair

Sadly, we must started the latest bloggerisationisms update with some very sad news, dear blog reader. We lost one of this blogger's favourite actors over the weekend, the great - and, for once, that is a wholly appropriate description - Ron Silver at the age of sixty two. Quite brilliant as the tough political analyst Bruno Gianelli in two series of The West Wing. Excellent, also, in Ali as Angelo Dundee even though, reportedly, half of his scenes were cut from the finished movie. A very sad loss.
This blogger might as well start off this current week's Top Telly Tips bloggerisationisms with a quick round-up on the subject of yer actual Comic Relief: The Aftermath. Keith Telly Topping, you may recall, wondered last week, if the United Kingdom remained a country full of people who are as generous with their hard-earned cash when times are tough as they appear to be when there is a fair bit of surface wonga floating around the gaff, and that. The answer to this rhetorical question would appear to be, from the evidence of late Friday night and early Saturday morning, a very resounding yes. And, you know, fair play to you all, people of Britain. This blogger is not a great supporter of worthy causes his very self but he is curiously moved when he sees a mass outpouring of goodwill of this kind. It does the soul a bit of good, that. In the event, of course, lots a well known people (and, lots of not very well known people, for that matter) got dressed up in strange clothes for the day and did daft things to raise money. To the left, for example, we have a picture of Wor Jonny, Wor Gilly and Wor Alfie doing something extremely silly in the name of, you know, charidddeeee and all that. Good on ya, kids. Just make sure you don't ask Keith Telly Topping to join in with you next year. He has no intention of sitting in a bath of baked beans for six hours. Not again. Things weren't much better on the night itself and the actual Comic Relief telethon, especially for poor old Davina McCall, it has been widely reported. She was said to have been so mortally offended in her brain by co-host David Tennant's garish choice of a dazzling white-suit-and-really-very-bright-indeed-pink-shoes combo that she, quite literally, lost control of her bowels whilst they were live on-air. As this photographic evidence would seem to clearly demonstrate. The photo also appears to suggest that David Tennant is,additionally, about eight feet tall, something we'd never even guessed from his appearances in Doctor Who. You learn something new everyday, it would appear. So, all in all, the night on TV was good fun ... in small doses (this blogger, his very self, gave up around 9:30 and went to bed with a good book - he's currently re-reading The Alan Clark Diaries as it happens - but then he'd been pretty tired all week). What can we say about those who stayed with the party all night, however? That they're far braver than Keith Telly Topping, certainly. It's enough to make you briefly believe that's a real fox in the Foxy Bingo-Goes-Disco adverts.
This blogger feels it necessary to clue-you-up on this, dear blog readers. No, it really isn’t. Trust Keith Telly Topping, he knows about these things - he's a widely respected journalist, author and broadcaster. At least, that's what it says on his business cards. Foxes generally don't have Yorkshire accents. Or, indeed, accents of any kind. And they don’t, as a rule, wear purple crushed-velvet jackets and massive Dan Dares and boogie the night away to Sister Sledge with a load of big fat lasses from down the bingo. They're normally more into industrial thrash metal or bone-shaking dub reggae. At least, the ones this blogger knows personally.

Anyway, here's a few bits and pieces of Top Telly News before we get on with the business at hand. Starting with, it has been widely reported that the BBC have purchased the terrestrial rights to all five series of the excellent US crime drama The Wire and intend to strip-schedule the show in its entirety across about twelve weeks. That's sixty episodes, in total if you're taking notes. Fine series - well-worthy of your time, particularly if you like stuff like The Shield.
Ratings news, now and the Let's Dance For Comic Relief finale - which, of course, was won by the one who isn't Davie Mitchell in Mitchell & Webb - received an overnight audience of almost eight million viewers. Thus giving Ant & Dec's Saturday Takeaway a right thorough twanking and their worst night, ratings-wise, for about three years (they ended up with just over five million overnight average). Poor lambs, it's all going a bit sour and pear-shaped for Wor Anthony and Wor December on ITV over the last few months. Come back home, lads, geographically and metaphorically. We still love you even if nobody else seems to. And, speaking of 'right ratings twankings,' ITV's extremely curious decision to show Steve and Becky's on-off-on-again-off-again wedding shenanigans on Corrie on the same night as Comic Relief could be said to have backfired, big-style. Both episodes, despite strong showings under normal circumstances (both were in the mid-eight million range) were simply hammered into submission by the whopping juggernaut that was Comic Relief which averaged ten million across the majority of the night and peaked at 12.3 million (and a quite staggering fifty one per cent audience share) in the 9pm to 10pm hour. If ITV were hoping to draw off some of those viewers, they failed miserably and, in doing so, achieved merely average and respectable overnight ratings for one of their own big hitter series' key episodes into the bargain. If they'd shown the episode(s) the following Monday instead, they'd have hit ten million themselves without question. Probably more.

A series that the BBC will be very pleased with is Sunday's gentle costume melodrama Lark Rise To Candleford which finished a second season with more-than-useful average ratings in the mid-six million range. And why not? Who doesn't enjoy watching Julia Sawalha mincing around the village like some saucy (Victorian) minx? Expect a third year to be confirmed by the BBC sooner rather than later. Ditto the Beeb's other major 'surprise weekend hit' of the year, Total Wipeout which concludes its run on Saturday coming. Expect (much) more Hammond and more, erm, 'balls' next year.
Meanwhile, there was a very good piece in Broadcast magazine the other week about ITV's recent drama schedule revival: 'Despite ITV1's dismal annual results, its drama output seems to be in good shape. Remember The Palace, The Fixer or Pierrepoint? Probably not, because chances are you didn't watch them and ITV probably wishes it could forget them altogether. Last year the commercial network had a crisis on its hands with its important Monday night dramas at 9pm. The Palace just scraped the three million mark on 18 February. The Fixer didn't do much better on 14 April with 3.3 million and Pierrepoint also had a tough time on 25 August with 3.6 million. What a difference a year makes. At a time when ITV doesn't have a lot to smile about after its annual results were published last week, its current drama output seems to be a ray of sunshine in the gloom, with crime-drama doing particularly well. Whitechapel – helped by Britain being effectively snowbound during the period it was being broadcast – launched on 2 February with an impressive 8.1 million. Also finding favour on a Monday night at 9pm was Above Suspicion, which hit 7.3 million on 5 January, while a week later the excellent Suranne Jones vehicle Unforgiven gained 7.2 million. ITV1 has also made its mark with the ongoing Law & Order: UK, which averaged 6.1 million over the first three episodes.' What a pity all of this comes - as the article notes - at a time when ITV collectively haven't got a pot to piss in and can't afford to make many more of the kind of shows which, it would appear, people actually want to watch. It is, as those fine Brothers Gibb once noted with such perceptive alacrity, a tragedy.

On a similar subject this week, the various heads of drama at BBC1, ITV and Channel Four have been interviewed – by Broadcast - about the kinds of new drama that they're looking to make: The BBC's commissioning controller Ben Stephenson said that as well reinventing genres - such as Life on Mars and [Spooks] - BBC1 9pm series and serials should also be reflecting people's everyday lives more closely - in the mould of series like The Street or Cutting It. Midweek there were planning big pieces of 'muscular storytelling' over several weeks in the style of Life on Mars, Criminal Justice and the forthcoming Iraq-War drama Occupation. Second series of Five Days and Criminal Justice were in the works so no more stripped dramas are wanted at present. (Rumours that the next series of Torchwood – now, seemingly, scheduled for June or July - will be stripped across one week continue to surface.) The Saturday 7pm "family drama" slot: With Doctor Who, Merlin and Robin Hood in place this slot is now pretty much locked down and Stephenson is not looking for any more - although he is still interested in a 'swashbuckling' boys-own style show for another slot in the week. Single dramas: Stephenson said it was 'quite rare' to read a one-off script that feels big enough for BBC1, but he is keen to make a few singles which have 'scale and talkability.'
     ITV’s drama controller Laura Mackie is looking for successors to earlier - character-driven - pieces such as Fat Friends (urgh! Really...?) and At Home With The Braithwaites (that's a wee bit better). These have to have 'a real narrative pulse' and show signs of being strong returning hits. She doesn't want 'niche' or 'cool' dramas and costume drama is right out as it's 'too expensive.' Particularly for ITV, a network without the money for a cup of tea at present. Singles: ITV will show fewer of these than in recent years (where they've been something of a market-leader in the genre) but there are still slots available, with a particular emphasis on family dramas for bank holidays.
    Channel Four's head of drama Liza Marshall wants producers to be entrepreneurial. She urged indies to come to the table with funding from third parties such as screen agencies to boost the budgets that they can work with. C4, like ITV being, of course, poorer than a church mouse in debtors gaol at the moment. Their 2009 drama quota is filled at present, but 2010 is mostly up for grabs and the budget is looking 'relatively healthy' for strong, author-led pieces. The key is that such dramas can 'really cut through and get noticed.' Purely 'grim' drama is out. 'Don't bring me people addicted to heroin in council flats – it's too bleak.' Says the person whom, I presume, commissioned Red Riding (or, at least, is head of drama of the network that is currently showing it). Is that supposed to be dramatic irony, or what?
This blogger understands what Marshall is trying to say and he doesn't, necessarily, disagree with the point that she's - rather clumsily - making. But that statement could have been worded a hell of a lot better. I mean, Our Friends in the North wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs. It's also, probably, the greatest drama British TV has ever produced. Proto-realist and hard does not, necessarily, have to equate to dreary just as 'light and frothy' does not always mean entertaining.
Meanwhile, the BBC has reportedly pulled a sketch from repeats of the first episode of Horne & Corden in which the duo performed a spoof anti-gun crime dance, in the wake of the shooting of fifteen children in a German school this week. On the subject of Horne & Corden, isn't it ...? I'm searching for the right words here. Absolute arse, basically? I mean, there's a couple of guys whose entire act - which sort-of worked in Gavin & Stacey - has suddenly got very old, very quickly. Ninety percent of their sketch material appears to be based on the fact that one of them is rather fat and the other one, you know, isn’t. How very cutting-edge and now, boys. So, back to sitcoms for the pair of you, is it? I noticed James Corden saying the other day that the pair wanted to 'limit' the amount of new stuff they do in case the public get sick of them. Too late in the case of this particular member of the public, I'm afraid.
And now, at last, the latest batch of Top Telly Tips:

Friday 20 March
Genius – 10:00 BBC2 - is a Radio 4 comedy staple, so it was therefore obviously only a matter of time before it got transferred to TV. It's a rather curious little thing because it isn't, really, either a panel show or a sitcom. Nor is it a sketch show for that matter. Essentially, it's a vehicle for the excellent Dave Gorman, a very amiable sort of chap, who gently quizzes various members of the public who volunteer their - allegedly - "genius" ideas. So, it's a sort of 'nice' version of Dragon's Den, if you can imagine such a queer oddity. The ideas from the public are mostly very silly indeed, of course, but that's kind-of the whole point. In tonight's particular case a man suggests 'giant running shoes,' while another has an ingenious means of protecting his girlfriend from the rain. It's up to the guest (Cat Tate on the opening episode) to decide which if any of these daft suggestions really are genius.
Saturday 21 March
It's the final episode of the current series of Qi: XL - 10:00 BBC2. Tonight Stephen Fry takes a look at the subject of food along with regular cohorts David Mitchell, the dry-as-the-desert Rich Hall, the smug-but-sometimes-funny Jimmy Carr and Alan Davies. As this blogger mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it's been a bit of a strange year for Qi. Held back for such a long time because of the switch from BBC2 to BBC1 and the normal – thirty minute – episodes now seem almost superfluous besides the extended BBC2 XL repeats. But, at its best, when it has witty guests (Dara, Rob Brydon, Sean Lock, Clarkson or Davie Mitchell are always particularly entertaining) and when Stephen is on blisteringly fine form and Alan on amusingly obvious form (deadpanning his way through another attempt at giving the answer 'the blue whale' straight-faced) Qi remains, quite simply, the business. The single brightest comedy show on TV. Bar absolutely none. Next – seventh - season is scheduled to be filmed this summer and for broadcast early next year. It will be a sixteen episode bonanza. In 'G'!

Sunday 22 March
This weekend sees the return of Lewis at 9:00 on ITV starring Wor lovely Kevin Whately and Mister Billie Piper. Robbie Lewis and James Hathaway investigate the strange murder of a beautiful young Eastern European woman whose death comes straight from the pages of a popular fantasy novel written by an Oxford tutor, Dorian Crane. Is this the work of an obsessive fan or is there something even more sinister going on? More sinister than 'orrible murder? The mind positively boggles as to what that could possibly entail. This may be the last season for Lewis if widespread rumours are true that ITV want to finish the show on the grounds of spiralling costs. Which is fair enough, every programme has to be cost-effective, but I'm not entirely sure what ITV hopes to replace it with that would get anywhere near the same sort of ratings. And, of course, that would also be the end of a TV lineage that stretches back over twenty years to the first episode of Inspector Morse. If given a choice between another series of Al Murray's Multiple Personality Disorder and this, I'll take this every time, thanks.

Tonight also sees the start of a new, third, series of The Secret Millionaire - 9:00 C4. In this, millionaires goes undercover in a deprived area in the hope of changing someone's life with a generous gift of their own, hard-earned, coin. Kevin Morley from Oxford is the former MD of Rover, once responsible for an annual turnover of three billion quid. Kevin looks for work as a volunteer among community projects in Haringey, North London, which suffers from poor housing and overcrowding problems. At its best, this show is as good as anything Channel 4 have done in years. It can be a bit shamelessly manipulative and tear-jerking, of course, with this sort of subject matter that kind of goes with the territory. But, importantly, its heart is in the right place and so, usually, is the height of its squirm threshold. One for the connoisseurs, this.

Monday 23 March
Cleopatra was one of the most famous women in history. We know her as a great queen, a beautiful lover and a political schemer (and, if the 1960 movie starring Liz Taylor was accurate, possessor of a quite magnificent pair of knockers). However, for two thousand years almost all evidence of her actual life has disappeared - until now. In one of the world's most exciting finds, archaeologists believe they have discovered the mummified skeleton of her sister, murdered by Cleopatra and Mark Antony. From Egypt across the Med to Turkey, Scottish Neil Oliver (and his lovely hair) investigates the story of a ruthless queen who would mercilessly do away with her own siblings in the quest for ultimate power in Cleopatra: Portrait Of A Killer - 9:00 BBC1. Sounds rather excellent, this – I mean, this blogger could cheerfully watch Scottish Neil Oliver reading the telephone directory on TV and still find it utterly fascinating. It's the lovely hair, obviously. The accent too but, mainly, the hair. Some guys can just effortlessly pull off that long-hair thing. Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen might look like a Civil War fop but Scottish Neil looks like the kind of guy you'd find casually nodding away in the second row of a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert.

Isn't Law & Order: UK - 9:00 ITV - good? I mean, completely unexpectedly good? Who would have thought Bradley Walsh could be so tremendously effective in a part like this? A part that, on paper, seems clichéd and obvious beyond reason. The rest of the cast radiate quality too - Jamie Bamber, Harriet Walter, Ben Daniels, Freema Agyeman, Bill Paterson. All great, especially given that they’ve usually got such a small amount of screen-time each week to make their mark. I was particularly impressed with Chris Chibnall's episode last week which got right into the dark-heart of CPS and how they really are only interested in conviction statistics and sod the extenuating circumstances of a particular case. Tonight, when the bones of Tommy Keegan are discovered in a basement, Ronnie. Matt Devlin and Natalie are faced with a twenty-year-old cold case. Oh, so they're doing Waking the Dead this week. Nice one. The only people who seem to know anything about the case are the man originally arrested after Tommy's disappearance, and Tommy's best friend Julia, who may have repressed memories. Crown Prosecutors Alesha and James have a risky case on their hands.
24 - Sky One 9:00 – and the (as always) intense and graphic action of the real-time drama continues furiously apace. A surprise meeting brings about unexpected results for Big Hard Jack. They've pulled off the best storyline they've attempted in years. I mean, Mad! As! Toast! of course (terrorists invade The White House and hold the President hostage … this never happened to Martin Sheen and co!) But, it's superbly entertaining in sort-of a switch-off-your-brain-this-is-tremendous way. This year we've had a very good performance by Cherry Jones as the Hillaryesque (and, somewhat boss-eyed) Prez. Plus, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Janeane Garofolo in one show – what's not to love? Is it too much to hope that we get some plotline later in the season which will involves Chloe and Janis being trapped, somewhere, together? Possibly involving them huddling nervously in a .... bubble bath of some description? Never mind, it was just a passing thought…

Tuesday 24 March
Ray Langston faces a steep learning curve on his first day in the job when an arson case turns into a homicide investigation and a burglary is not all it seems in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - 9:00 Five. Larry Fishburne has, quite simply, taken this show by the scruff of the neck, slapped it about the mush a few times and said in that deeply rich and menacing voice of his, 'you is maaaa bitch, now!' In pairing him off with Nicky (the always excellent George Eads) the writers have cleverly managed to quickly integrate him into the show's aesthetic to the point that, it is almost as though Bill Petersen was never there. Despite all the immitators, CSI is still the daddy of the US procedural cop show. (Although, it has to be said Bones is getting very close.)

The Lion Cub from Harrods - 8:00 Five – is a delightfully bonkers-looking documentary telling the story of John Rendall and Ace Bourke, a couple of Australian lads in London who bought a lion cub from Harrods in 1969 (that'd be from the 'Big Dangerous Pet Department,' this blogger is guessing. It was on the fourth floor next to the Department of Knives, Forks, Spoons, Lemon Squeezers and Baboon Garroters). John and Ace hand-reared the animal, Christian, at their groovy pad on the Kings Road in Chelsea. I know this sounds like a plot for a kooky late-sixties movie starring Tuesday Weld and Susan George but, seriously, this actually happened. After the pair met the Posh and Becks of their day, the actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna - of Born Free fame and, by then, committed advocates for wildlife conservation - in 1971, they arranged to fly to Kenya in the hope of releasing the lion into the wild. This film, full of home movie footage shot at the time, brings the remarkable tale up to date.

Last century, earthquakes killed over one million people and it is estimated that this century's toll could be ten times as high. Horizon: Why Can't We Predict Earthquakes? - 9:00 BBC2 – asks why science has yet to work out a way to forewarn when and where the next big quake will strike. Journeying to China's Sichuan Province as well as the notorious San Andreas Fault in California, Horizon asks why science has so far fallen short of answering this fundamental question. I must admit, virtually every time I've been to California (and I'm now up to, I think, twelve visits over the course of a decade) I've noticed minor tremors on each occasion - I remember I was actually on-stage at the Airtel in Van Nuys one time when we got 'a bit of a rumble.' Yet the big ones, when they happen (like the massive 1994 Northridge quake) always seem to come as if from nowhere. This sounds a rather fascinating documentary.

Wednesday 25 March
Oh, stop whatever you're doing for the next twelve weeks because, like it or not (and I don't) The Apprentice returns - 9:00 BBC1. And, as far as the media will be concerned, that's ALL there's going to be on TV till about June. That sour-faced malcontent Sir Alan Sugar-Sweetie (maker of the world's crappiest PCs, incidentally. And, more fool me, this blogger bought two of them over the years before he got wise to their flaws) sets gruelling tasks for business hopefuls as the sixteen fresh-faced candidates enter the boardroom for the first time. They are immediately given their first task: Make as much money as possible by starting up a cleaning company (and sod whomsoever you have to trample over to make it, no doubt). With just eight hours to turn a profit, both teams have to roll up their tailored sleeves and get stuck in. But which among them will be the first to hear the dreaded 'You're fired' line? I really (and I do mean really) dislike this show (and Dragons' Den for that matter). Bully boy TV of the worst kind. I, genuinely, would pay good money to see one of those hapless wretches he's just verbally abused for no obvious reason smash a big hard brick into Sugar-Sweetie's smug face just the once. Once'd be enough, you don't want overkill. The cheering across the land would deafen any dissent. No court in the country would convict, they'd give the bricker a medal instead...

And speaking of bully-boy TV ... Clough - 10:35 ITV – is a documentary looking at the life and legacy of the great Brian Clough, following his career in football management from Derby County to Leeds United and Nottingham Forest (not much mention of Hartlepool or Brighton & Hove Albion Nil there, I notice) and examining the continuing interest in one of sports most charismatic and entertaining personalities. The man who once said 'I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in football but, I'm certainly in The Top One.' The man who, when asked if one of his players challenged the way he did things how he would react replied 'I'd ask him how he thought it should be done, we've get down to it, talk for twenty minutes and then decide I was right all along.' The man who positively embiggened the public image of The Boss. Of course, later this month will see the opening of The Damned United, based on the best-selling (and highly controversial) novel by David Peace about Brian's apocalyptic forty four days in charge at Elland Road. ('Up the stairs. Round the corner. Down the corridor. Towards the office. HIS office.') Exclusive ITV archive footage includes the Yorkshire TV Calendar special, introduced by Austin Mitchell, in which Cloughie faced his arch nemesis and bête noire Don Revie on the night that the axe had fallen at Leeds. With contributions from Clough's family and colleagues, including his wife Barbara, Martin O'Neill, Johnny Giles (so, no obvious agenda there, then) and Brian's close friend the equally outspoken bloody-minded Yorkshire icon Geoffrey Boycott ('techneeeeeeque!'). Narrated by Peter Postlethwaite. Marvellous stuff, young man.

Now eighty three years young, TV's first great travel journalist Alan Whicker sets out on one final trip reflecting his varied and impressive career in Alan Whicker's Journey of a Lifetime - 9:00 BBC2. In this first episode, Whicker revisits Venice to retrace his steps from war to peace - from soldier to Fleet Street journalist and his move into the fledgling world of television for the BBC in the 1950s. Included in the clips revisited in this episode are Whicker's earliest surviving TV appearance and the remarkable story of what happened when Alan became the first man to enter a closed and silent order of nuns - and got them to talk to him.

Thursday 26 March
The Mentalist - 9:00 Five – is a new US series (probably this year's biggest new network hit, actually although it hasn't had a lot of competition) following the work of an investigator who uses his skills of observation to solve crimes. It has also got, quite comfortably, the worst title of any TV show since Bobby Davro's Rock With Laughter. Patrick Jane (played by the excellent Simon Baker) is a former fake-psychic now working as a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation. He is called in to investigate a double murder that is linked to a notorious serial killer. Quite good, actually, well-acted and with some surprisingly clever plotines. If you like something like, say, Medium or Haunted you'll probably like this.

Are today's parents a bunch of dreadful narcissists, only interested in gaining reflected glory and an easy middle-age via their children? Trophy Kids – 9:00 on Channel Four – is a documentary following four parents who will, seemingly, do whatever it takes to propel their talented youngsters to the top in their chosen sport, sacrificing their jobs, their savings, and even their children's education in the ceaseless quest for success.

Just after midnight on Good Friday 1989, the giant supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound to create one of the biggest man-made ecological disasters of the 20th century. Oil Spill - The Exxon Valdez Disaster - 9:00 BBC2 - retraces the numerous errors that led to the disaster and investigates the legacy of the spill and the lasting environmental damage, featuring interviews with the crew members who were aboard the supertanker on the fateful night.